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Reeling from killings, trans community calls for understanding

Trans women's issues are getting more attention, but activists say that recent deaths show it's not enough

NEW YORK CITY – On the eve of one the nation’s largest gay pride parades, a rainbow of colors illuminated the Empire State Building like a guiding light for hundreds of thousands of people flowing into the city for Sunday’s festivities.

But just a couple of avenues east in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, transgender rights activists crowded into a dim room, reading speeches and poems about why they were skipping this year's Pride festivities.

“While you’re off celebrating Pride, our community is dealing with the brutal deaths of Zoraida Reyes, Tiff Edwards, Yaz’min Shancez,” said Lourdes Ashley Hunter, speaking at an anti-Pride event organized by poet activists DarkMatter. Hunter is a member of the Audre Lorde Project’s TransJustice program, a New York-based organization for trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

The tagline of NYC Pride’s website reads, “Yesterday’s struggle is today’s heritage.” However, for transgender people of color the struggle continues.

Every week of June this year – a month designated to remember the history and struggle of the LGBT community – a transgender woman of color was found dead.

On June 3, Kandy Hall’s body was found in a field northeast of Baltimore. Eight days later, on June 11, Zoraida Reyes, a 28-year-old Mexican activist involved in Southern California transgender and immigration advocacy groups, was found behind a Dairy Queen. Her death is still being investigated as suspicious. On June 19, the burned body of Yaz’min Shancez, 31, was found behind a dumpster. And on June 26, three days before New York and San Francisco Pride, 28-year-old Tiff Edwards was found shot to death in a suburb of Ohio.

Hunter’s speech at the start of the “Anti-Pride” poetry slam captured the feelings of many transgender people of color.

“The mortality rate of a black trans woman is 35 years old,” Hunter said. “I’m not supposed to be here...put that on the cover of Time.”

Transgender activists march down Manhattan's Christopher Street on June 27 – a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn where riots in 1969 ignited the LGBT rights movement.
Transgender activists march down Manhattan's Christopher Street on June 27 – a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn where riots in 1969 ignited the LGBT rights movement.
Kevin Tsukii/America Tonight

Although the grand marshals leading this year's San Francisco and Manhattan Pride parades were both black transgender women (writer Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox of "Orange Is the New Black" fame, respectively), activists objected that the violent deaths of four transgender women of color weren’t discussed in the mainstream media as Pride parades were being thrown across the world. Despite their violent deaths, the four transgender women were only covered by local and metro news outlets.

“Honestly, it makes me think that having Laverne Cox as a grand marshal is for show...they want organizations to show that they are inclusive,” said Jay Toole, a lesbian activist who participated in the 1969 Stonewall riots that triggered the start of the LGBT rights movement.

Many like Toole see a problem in the incongruity between the estimated millions watching Laverne Cox and the public’s ignorance towards the daily violences transgender people face.

“Pride has become less about resistance and [more] about partying,” said Janani Balasubramanian, an organizer with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, an organization that advocates for the rights of undocumented queer and transgender people. “There’s severe, willful ignorance towards [these] issues and trans people of color.”

Solidarity on the streets

The Audre Lorde Project maintains that violence against trans and gender non-conforming people is increasing exponentially. According to a recent report by the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), trans women of color are especially vulnerable. In 2013, 89 percent of LGBT homicide victims were people of color, with 72 percent of those being transgender women, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

“We’re seeing increased visibility, absolutely,” said Shelby Chestnut, AVP’s co-director of community organizing and public advocacy, “but the severity of violence impacting trans and gender non-conforming people of color remains the highest we’ve continued to see for multi-year trends both here in New York and nationally.”

To shine light on that violence, the Audre Lorde Project organized a march on the Friday afternoon before NYC Pride through Greenwich Village to “reclaim” the streets of the Stonewall Riots. Organizers deliberately called it a march and not a parade to highlight their calls for action. Their demands ranged from passing the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would make discrimination based on gender identity or expression in the state of New York illegal, to demanding that undocumented transgender individuals be granted asylum.

Audre Lorde Project TransJustice member Lourdes Ashley Hunter leads the June 27 march’s chants as attendees walk through New York's Greenwich Village.
Audre Lorde Project TransJustice member Lourdes Ashley Hunter leads the June 27 march’s chants as attendees walk through New York's Greenwich Village.
Kevin Tsukii/America Tonight

Roughly 1,000 transgender people and gay and straight cisgender -- those who are the same gender they were born as -- allies marched through the Village. They shouted chants like, “Whose streets? Our streets!" and "Trans people are under attack. What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” They also chanted “Se ve, se siente, el pueblo está presente,” which translates to: "We see. We feel. We are here."

“It’s really important to show solidarity with my transgender queer brothers and sisters,” said Dennis Chin, who was marching with the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York organization. “I think that they’re part of my community and I love them - so why wouldn’t I be here?”

Not all believed that boycotting Pride on Sunday was necessary. Many felt that Pride parades were just another way to increase the visibility of the issues facing the transgender community.

“I like Pride, I like rainbows and unicorns and glitter and I like Christmas,” said poet Cherno Biko, who identifies as a transgender woman. “What I got to do tomorrow morning is march with Laverne. Forty-five years after Stonewall, a trans woman of color is going to lead this march.”

Fighting for trans women

The Trans Day of Action march caught the attention of Cox and Mock, who endorsed the march and tweeted their support.

The march was a rare moment of unity for white transgender people, transgender people of color and gay and straight cisgender allies, according to transgender activist Madison St. Claire, who helps train New York Police Department recruits on trans issues. For example, the rally at the beginning of the march was translated for Spanish speakers. A sign language interpreter even translated speeches for the deaf and hard of hearing. St. Claire said that race divides the transgender community and that as a black transgender woman she’s “seen as the lowest on the totem pole.” However, the biggest divide she observed is between the cisgender gays and lesbians and the transgender community.

“You have to understand something: Pride Month has really nothing to do with the trans community,” said St. Claire, referencing that it was an event for cisgender gays and lesbians. “Just because Laverne Cox is the grand marshal of the Pride parade, which is a wonderful thing, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

As the march came to an end, organizers cautioned the crowd standing on the docks of the Christopher St. Pier to get home safely and travel in groups. Like St. Claire, Chin empathized with other transgender activists who felt excluded from Pride. As gay-marriage bans are struck down across the country, most recently in Kentucky, they felt that transgender rights have been left behind.

“[Gay marriage] seemed to become the face of the LGBT movement, [but] the movement is really much broader,” Chin said. “ I don’t mind if [marriage] is the face...but it’s like OK, we’re here fighting for trans women who, as you’ve heard, we’ve lost [four of] in the past month.”

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